Monday, April 13, 2015

A Life Well Lived

This post was originally published five years ago today under the title, "Goodbye Neighbor, and Thanks." Recently as I pondered the future of this blog (which has been inactive for several months), I have been reviewing old posts. This is one of my very favorites, and an inspiration to get the blog rolling again. Stay tuned.

My neighbor Alejandro died last week. I was out of town when it happened, and busy away from the house when I got back, so I didn't get the news until several days later.

Alejandro and I were not close, but he was my first friend in the neighborhood after I moved into my house in Mèrida a few years ago. He was an outgoing, gregarious type, always waving and saying hello, and I guess it was just in his nature to be the first one to start a conversation with the new guy on the block.

Alejandro was not a young man, but with his unlined face and continual smile he was energetic and always busy, so I was more than a little surprised when he told me several years ago that he was 75 years old. I would have sworn he was no more than sixty, and he might have passed for younger. He'd lost his wife at a young age and remarried, and worked many years as a taxi driver. He remained happy in his second marriage and together with his wife Ingrid raised a houseful of children, who now have families of their own.

Alejandro was always busy with projects, such as painting and repairing old cars he would buy, fix up, drive for awhile, and then resell. He told me he liked to work, and the problem-solving and tinkering involved with the cars, along with the incentive of making a little extra cash when he sold them, kept his mind and body agile and gave him something interesting to do.

Not that his days were empty. Various children and grandchildren were usually around, and the modest house full of activity. One of the last times I saw him, a few weeks ago, Alejandro was delightedly painting the house next door, which they had rented so his daughter and her family could move in. People from the U.S. often don't understand why different generations of a family would want to live in such close proximity. Here, people can't fathom how people from 
el norte manage living so far apart from the company, affection and support of their closest loved ones.

Passing by on the street when Alejandro was outside working often entailed more than a casual "buenos dias." He loved to talk about what he was doing, and to find out what I was up to. I sometimes brought him my car and home maintenance problems for advice. The give and take usually ran on for awhile. It seemed as if the socializing for him was the main point of being out on the street, and that washing the car or fixing the tire was something he would get done but not particularly important in comparison.

Alejandro's family owns a ranch about an hour's drive outside of Mèrida, and many times he invited me to go with him for a couple of days and hang out. Unfortunately that's something we never did because I always had something else going on. I started thinking about that when another neighbor told me Alejandro had suddenly died of a heart attack earlier last week. One of the reasons I moved to Mexico was because I wanted to stop living in tomorrow (laboring on and on for that retirement, saving all year for that brief vacation, etc.) and start doing what I want to do now. I have gotten better at living in the now, but the fact that I had put off the ranch visit time and again until it was too late bothers me. I looked forward to that trip as much as I liked Alejandro; he was a nice guy and we probably could have been better friends. I take all this as another of those little messages that life sends us, if we only will pay attention to them, telling us maybe we need to make an in-course correction along the way. I am taking it seriously.

Once my train of thought got rolling along these lines, I started thinking about how happy and successful this neighbor had always seemed to me. He was not a wealthy man, in fact by many Americans' standards he would have been considered poor. Alejandro and his wife raised a large family in a small three-room (not three bedroom, three room) house, where they lived for at least forty years. He didn't have a lot of stuff. His thirty-year-old cars were worth at most a few hundred dollars, and sometimes were broken down. But he always, even when under a balky car and covered with sweat and grease, seemed to enjoy living in the present and have a good time.

I read not long ago that Mexicans have among the highest levels of personal happiness in the world. I think that Alejandro is a good example of some of the reasons for this. It looks to me as if my late neighbor's success in life boiled down to a few simple points. He liked to be happy, so he usually was. He had a good attitude and didn't let small irritations or things beyond his control ruin his day. He was completely authentic: he had no "image" to maintain. He enjoyed everything he did as best he could. He seemed to be more interested in relationships -- his family, friends, and neighbors -- than in things or schedules. I think these qualities gave meaning to the life of a humble and modest man, and filled it with affection and love.

There is an example and a message here.

Adios, vecino, y gracias.

Text and images copyright 2015 by Marc Olson


  1. I was thinking of you recently -- and here you are. It is good to see you back online. Even though I must confess I have considered spiking my blog. Last weekend I went so far as setting up a termination date of 20 April. I have changed my mind.

    I remember this post. It caused me to start re-thinking some of my attitudes about my neighbors and what I could learn from them. I hope I have learned some lessons.

    1. I miss writing my blog and the interesting give-and-take with readers, and do plan to post more frequently. There was a time when I posted weekly, and I am not sure I will ever get back to that rate, but I'd like to keep it going. I've had some issues with privacy and the blog. I've met a couple of readers to seem to recall more about my life than I's a little spooky. However, there is enough other interesting subject matter out there for a lifetime of posts without getting too revealing.

      I am glad this one had some meaning for you.

  2. A very thoughtful, well-written post that is a lovely tribute to your late neighbor and a lesson for us all. Please do return to blogging. You are such a good writer.

    1. Thanks, Bill. Yes, I think the blog is back. It may change a little, but I do miss it and plan to keep on writing.

  3. I've MISSED your blogs so much. I frequently meet people in SMA who have come here because of reading my blog! I'm always taken aback by that. I'm shocked that I could possibly even have a tiny impact on someone's life......but then, if it's for the good, why not.

    About this post, as you have probably realized by now, the "now" and relationships are what life is all about, along with family, of course. I've learned so many lessons from the Mexican people. I'm grateful every day for the experience......

  4. Thank you for sharing this experience. It's a great lesson from people like Alejandro. It's so simple but it's so easy to forget and get into the rat race. Your post just remaind me to enjoy the moment.

  5. What a wonderful post! I admire people like Alejandro, who despite financial/material obstacles which would derail the average Gringo, manage to live full, happy lives. I'm sorry you never got to go to his ranch with him; that'd have surely been a memorable experience.

    I'm glad to see you back. I'd love to hear about your house project, which is undoubtedly absorbing most of your time.


    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where we haven't exactly been faithful bloggers ourself lately.

  6. Nice blog. I try to learn something from the folks around me yet I'm also leery of coveting someone's apparent good luck or happiness without knowing what's really going on in their lives. Still, I recently asked my gardener Felix, who lives with his life in very limited circumstances, whether he ever got blue or depressed. After a short pause he said that no, as long as the sun comes up in the morning, he is grateful for his life and his family. I was impressed by that attitude, a perfect example of the "mindfulness" that so many Americans try to achieve through yoga, meditation etc.


  7. Thanks, Marc, for recycling this. I had not seen it before. Very pertinent, and worthy of sharing again. ~eric.

  8. Hi Marc,
    Welcome back. I go through long dry blogging spells. Sometimes it's because I am too busy living to blog, other times because I just don't have things I want to share. It's always strange when people know me through my blog, because I think my blog persona is probably friendlier than my real self. I am probably shyer than people realize and certainly more socially awkward. I can revise my posts but not my actions.
    I always enjoy reading your posts, Often I learn something new from you about living here.

  9. How nice to see a resurrected Alaskan! I do remember this original post. Now, as then, I find it so thought-provoking that I am having trouble focussing on how to respond. But for now, your post has prompted me to replay this song interpreted by Placido Domingo & Dionne Warwick:

    Granted, everyone won’t see the logic behind my association—“Laugh it off”? Or the very recent findings which show the benefits of the therapeutic benefits of laughter? I do believe, however, that the Mexican willingness to smile in the face of adversity contributes to the country’s high happiness ranking.

    To my way of thinking, a smile is on the laughter continuum; and casual chatter might just be the bottom rung of the laughter ladder. At least, that’s how it works for me here in Mexico.


  10. Thank you for writing this story, this "vignette" of life observed as an outsider yet pondered from within. Your writing style is lovely, and your insights well worth posting on a blog! I find myself unable to read past this passage, so powerfully it stops me in my reader's tracks:

    "He was completely authentic: he had no "image" to maintain."

    Wow. That's well put. The word authenticity is so often used yet so rarely defined simply. You put your finger on it in a better way than entire books about "being authentic" or "living authentically" ever captured! HE HAD NO IMAGE TO MAINTAIN.

    Thank you. I'm going to put that on my wall. And let it guide my own life.


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